Melanie Ward

The Lady of the Lake

interview by Christopher Michael


CM Your career then and now. What’s the secret?
MW Quintessentially to me, definitely, everything has always come from my gut. I feel from those very early days through projects I’m working on now. I just feel it’s always more of a gut reaction than anything.
CM The entire entrance of you and your contemporaries into fashion was something quite pivotal and so quickly rippled across the pond at a time when not all trends did…
MW It all happened very fast for us. I met Corrine Day, Dave Sims, Nigel Shafran, Kate Moss, Glen Luchford, Mario Sorrenti, all at the same time. For us it was really just hanging out with your friends, creating images. I feel as though I can speak for everyone when saying that we invented the wheel as we went along. We had no references. It was kind of the life we were living, feeling certain things or styles of photography…
CM It wasn’t necessarily even about fashion so much in the beginning, was it?
MW No. Basically, what we were doing was we were literally having the best time hanging out and creating images. For us it was never really a sit down and think “this is going to be our career.” We were very much living in that moment; a precious moment of complete innocence and pure creativity with no motivation to be rich, famous, or even work in fashion. What we felt in our gut was the complete antithesis of what was happening in fashion at that time. Which I like to refer to as maximilism, even though it isn’t really a word. I sometimes think back and I wonder whether we kind of preempted the zeitgeist in a way because what we were doing just felt right to us. I guess grunge was happening music-wise in America, but I don’t think we were particularly aware of that. We were in our own little universe in London. Things weren’t so connected the way they are today.
CM Being that this aesthetic was not that of the ruling trends in photography at the time, did you ever experience any sort of push back with it all?
MW Nobody really understood what we were doing and Corrine and I would go to Paris sometimes with our portfolios and people would always be so baffled. I distinctly remember them saying to us “What is this? This isn’t fashion. These are people wearing their own clothes.” and we were always like, “Well, no, we actually staged this all.” It was just so alien to the norm at the time, which sounds so weird, because if you see those pictures now, they aren’t out of place. People refer to them as iconic, but it’s not even that. It’s just more somehow that they are quite timeless. Without in any way deliberate manifesting it, we kind of set standards at the time that I guess were considered groundbreaking. But it was never a deliberate conscious decision to do. We were seriously just having the best time and just being completely creative and completely free. At the time, I wasn’t necessarily responding to a lot of the designer clothes. I was just having the best time and would occasionally customize things or pull vintage, even jeans – I was really at the time into a “skinny hipster jean” which just didn’t exist, so I would go and buy a boys jean and alter them. Or destroy the jeans, or sand them, or oil them… things that seem so easy to buy now that you couldn’t buy then.
CM Which was a big part of what you had done for Calvin Klein at the time, no?
MW Quite quickly, people did start to notice what we were doing – and Ronnie Cooke Newhouse is an amazing woman, Corrine and I met her, she would often just come on our shoots with us. An incredible woman with incredibly great taste. She was working at Calvin and completely championed us. Calvin who is a total genius and still remains a dear friend, was incredibly open and an entirely talented man himself. He picked up on what we were doing and quickly flew Kate, David, myself and Dick Page and Guido, to shoot a campaign. I remember that I basically customized all of the jeans, and had to fight to shoot black jeans as well, I did a lot of the campaigns for Calvin and had worked with him on the collections. I also did a lot of CK and remember hiring literally armies of people to come and scrub jeans and sand them and oil them…
CM Wasn’t that tricky to reproduce mass for sales?
MW Eventually they actually made them, it was only that at the time none of that existed before. You could buy vintage with the best wash, but you couldn’t buy a new jean that was pre-washed or pre-destroyed…
CM What was the role of stylist at that time? Was it already established or still shaping up?
MW I never assisted anyone, I just started to make clothes and hung out with amazing talented and likeminded people. For some reason, everything clicked. A small amount of people who got on well together and inspired each other, it’s not like I came from a background of it. All of us were much more indie, I suppose. I’m sure it’s different now if you’re 20 years old in fashion. We didn’t see it as a business at all. It was just a way of expressing ourselves but I feel that clearly now, it’s ust very different for a 20 year old getting into fashion. It’s a different ball game really.
CM Social media has certainly been a game changer for both those already in the business as well as those coming into it.
MW I actually completely love social media. I just feel like when we started out that we weren’t really motivated by fame or competing with other people. It was more of a desire to achieve something for myself and go on this creative voyage of self discovery. Whereas I feel, maybe for some people nowadays, I wonder whether just the climate can encourage people to pursue fame, to court fame for fame’s sake rather than… I don’t know. People can almost lose sight of having a spiritual perspective, if that makes sense.
CM Of course it does. Everything you’re saying is quite tangible in the current culture of fashion…
MW For me, working in fashion is very much an emotional experience. Whether it’s a campaign, editorial, being a part of the design process… it just makes me happy. I’ve always felt as though life should be more of a search for meaning rather than simply for fame. I do think that fame is, of course, a wonderful thing when wielded properly and with good ethics but I just find it super vacuous when someone is in a pursuit of fame alone. I don’t necessarily know where that goes, really. Should fame be deserved or should fame be pursued?
CM Did you see the quote from Raf Simons about fashion having become Pop?
MW That’s kind of what I’m saying in a way. I do love that everything is democratized, I think it’s great. The thing is, it’s never going to go back to what it was – I can’t see how that would work. Unless there will come a time where people will just start to do very small elitist, very hands on, very personal, very small things. Sometimes you get a backlash…
CM I’ve recently been obsessing over the comparison of when art went from abstract expressionism to POP art and how that moment seems to be replicating in a way in the world of fashion and it’s relationship to mass….
MW What I think is interesting, definitely a lot of actors – I don’t know how you find from the modeling standpoint, but I feel like they are definitely looking at followers. I don’t know if they are doing it with photographers and stylists, but that whole thing is quite an anomaly to me. I guess they feel like they will reach a bigger audience depending who they are working with?
CM This is true, and what makes it exciting now, is that we are able to work with talent that autonomously can create content and share it through their own channels…
MW I love that because that’s something that interests me more than anything, is brand building. The time is right. I’m just so interested. Things have really opened up in that sense. Maybe people are less pigeonholed in a way, no? There are certain people who can do way more than just be a stylist or photographer or model. It’s like being a lifestyle brand, it’s a certain level of taste, maybe – personal taste. You know that I’m interested in many different fields – not just fashion. Your DNA, your own brand. For me, I feel like there are less boundaries today than there once were. No?
CM I agree.
MW Maybe that’s something to really celebrate.
CM It’s so interesting to me how you don’t seem to struggle with the natural evolution of things in the way sometimes people do when working in any given industry for a long time. You don’t seem to get snagged on old ways of consuming things…
MW It’s not like I’m nostalgic, perhaps, for personal things or relationships… but I’m not necessarily nostalgic for the past because when you get too nostalgic it can really handicap you or get you so stuck. That was then and this is now, I’m super excited about now. I’m grateful for everything. I like to challenge myself and do things that stir up emotion. Someone asked me the other day how I would define luxury, and I thought about it and of course years ago you might have said it was a certain quality or authenticity. Authenticity always speaks luxury to me. Then I started to think that nowadays, luxury is some sort of transformative experience. It’s wellness, it’s peace of mind. Having time is luxury nowa- days. That’s how you make progress, as well. It’s having that time and space.